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Family-friendly outdoor activities

Children who spend a lot of time outdoors benefit from exposure to nature in myriad ways, some of which may surprise even the most devoted outdoorsmen.

According to a 2006 study published in the journal Human Dimensions of Wildlife, fifth graders who attended school at a local prairie wetlands where lessons in science, math and writing were integrated in an experimental way had significantly stronger reading and writing skills than their peers who attended more traditional schools. Another study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that holding a class outdoors one day a week significantly improved the daily cortisol patterns of students, reducing their risk of stress and improving their ability to adapt to stress.

Parents who want their children to reap the rewards of being exposed to the great outdoors can encourage educators to incorporate nature into school curriculums and also embrace these family-friendly outdoor activities.

• Nature treasure hunt: A treasure hunt in nature can keep kids engaged on family hiking excursions and provide an excellent opportunity for parents to teach children about the assortment of plants, birds and wildlife that live in the parks and along the trails near their home.

• Outdoor art class: Families don't even need to leave their properties to spend quality time together outside. Pick a pleasant afternoon and set up an outdoor painting station, encouraging everyone to paint what they see. Fall is a great time to host an outdoor art sessions thanks to the assortment of vibrant colors that have become synonymous with autumn landscapes.

• Evening story time: Outdoor activities need not be limited to daylight hours. A post-dinner backyard story-time can entice everyone outside, where families can pass around a flashlight telling silly or spooky stories.

• Stargaze: Stargazing is another way families can spend time outdoors and learn a few things at the same time. Some blankets, a thermos of hot cocoa and a chart of constellations can provide the perfect complement to a sky full of bright stars. If visibility is compromised in the backyard, find a local spot where everyone can get a clear view of the night sky.

• Fruit picking: Apple picking is a popular autumn activity, but families need not wait for the autumn harvest to enjoy a day picking fruit or vegetables at a nearby farm. Visit a local farm during its harvest season, teaching children about how the foods they love are grown and eventually make it to the family dinner table.